Pondering a Word: What’s in a Meme?

As biological creatures, it shouldn’t be too surprising that it isn’t just our bodies that exhibit biological qualities.  The ways in which we think and interact—our intellectual, social, and cultural selves—also function in inherently biological ways.

I’m thinking about this concept because of a word that I’ve come across in numerous places, and have always swallowed as part of the sentence or paragraph in which it was situated.  Until now, I’ve never really thought to pick it up individually and turn it over in my hands.  That word is “meme.”  As Shakespeare might have said, “What’s in a meme?”

Here’s how dictionary.com defines the word:

meme [meem]

Noun. A cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.

Now, the interesting part for me is the “analogous to biological transmission” part.  Essentially, the concept is that ideas can move from person to person in ways that approximates the flow of DNA.  I say “DNA” (as opposed to genes) because it broadens the concept considerably.

I don’t want to dive too deeply into a purely biological discussion, but in a nutshell, genes are responsible for transmitting inherited traits to individual organisms.  Although it is possible for harmful mutations in genetic material to occur during replication, for the most part, the transmission of genes is a “good” thing.  (By good, I mean that without this transmission, humans and all other living things would cease to exist.)

On the other hand, the transmission of DNA is not always so “good.”  I’m thinking of viruses here, that are basically a bundle of DNA (or RNA) encapsulated in a protein coat (and sometimes surrounded by a lipid coat as well).  There are lots of ways that viruses spread their genetic material, but they all involve inserting themselves into a host cell.  They rely upon the cellular functions of the host to replicate.  In this way, they function like the cellular equivalent of a parasite that you might find in your gut.

This viral or parasitic aspect of gene transfer was what got Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and philosopher, thinking.  It was Dawkins who coined the term “meme” to describe the tendency of human beings, when exposed to new ideas or ways of being, to imitate.  However, that imitation often happens in an imperfect manner, or becomes infused with other elements of “newness.”

Another interesting biological tidbit (and one for which I am having trouble finding a source to cite here—sorry!) is that when a population doubles within a certain area, the incidence of disease is squared.  Disease is at least partly explained by viral (genetic) flows between individuals, so linear increases in population will result in exponential increases in genetic (or memetic) flow.

The Internet makes all of this flow of genes and memes very strange indeed.  Suddenly, the concept of increasing a population within a certain area becomes irrelevant.  If we take the Internet as an infinitely elastic room into which we can all fit, it’s suddenly easy to understand how little things—say, wearing a certain brand of baseball cap, or a Justin Bieber video—can spread so quickly.  We’re basically coughing all over each other every time we go online.

But before I make it sound as if the transmission of ideas is an inherently bad thing, I want to get back to the way in which genes are transmitted.  Some organisms reproduce asexually—they basically clone themselves and produce a bunch of Mini-Me’s.  You could view this as passing on an idea without allowing for any modification or adaptation.  We have another name for that—brainwashing.

Other organisms, humans included, rely on a mix-and-match approach, blending the genes of the parents in a sort of genetic raffle.  This gives new swimmers a chance to dive into the pool, and prevents genetic bottlenecks.  I’m sure there must be a few examples of cultural bottlenecks out there over the vastness of human history, but our fascinating tendency (you might even say our defining tendency) is to burst out of confinement (whether that relates to genes or thought), and to bring new things together.

Interestingly, viruses may have a positive role in the transfer of all of this genetic material. Because of their intrinsically genetic nature (remember that they’re really just a strand of DNA or RNA), they function as a major vehicle of horizontal gene transfer.  They move in, insert something new, and change the future.

Sometimes, that change results in the death of the host.  (I feel that way when I get sent a link to a Bieber video.)  Other times, that change results in the crossover of something from one host (say, a pig, or a TED Talk) to a new host (say, a Siamese fighting fish, or a rockin’ YA novel concept ).  New things are born, and the gene pool benefits.

There is more to say, but rather than go too deeply into detail, I’ll just leave the ideas with you to ponder.  Consider the way in which our immune systems function as a form of defence again foreign organisms that invade our bodies.  What is the memetic analogue—the cultural or thought immune response?  And if there is such a thing, is it possible to seek out a cultural or thought vaccine?  Or are we simply forced to resort to quarantine?


About jackfrey
Jack Frey lives somewhere in Northeast Asia with his wife and two young boys. He finds the letter K to be the most aesthetically pleasing of all the consonants, in both its upper and lowercase forms. Like many of us, he is currently seeking publication of his first novel.

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